Even in the best of circumstances, a cyanide plant would seem like a tough sell.
But amid flurries of a mystery particulate falling from the sky and an invasive stench so strong that some have considered moving, residents of Waggaman, Harahan, River Ridge and Kenner have risen up against plans by Cornerstone Chemical Co. to build a hydrocyanic acid plant in Waggaman.
Unlike the Jefferson Parish landfill, Cornerstone’s existing 800-acre facility on River Road has never been identified as a source of the noxious odors, and the particulate is thought by many residents to be coming from late-night barge-loading activity by other companies on the Mississippi River.
Still, amid those nuisances, the idea that the state Department of Environmental Quality could approve a new plant that would produce a substance popularly synonymous with a lethal poison has proven to be a bridge too far for many residents.
Melissa Taylor, a lifelong Harahan resident who lives there with her husband and four children, said she fears the two proposed 26,000-gallon storage tanks could leak, emit gas or even explode.
“No one anticipates these catastrophes, but they do happen,” she said. “We all have children in this neighborhood; there are elderly people who live here. … How do we get out of here if (something) happens?”
DEQ is accepting public comments on the $100 million project until Monday, but it is considering requests to extend that period, a spokesman said Wednesday. And with 800 comments submitted so far, all of which will have to be answered, it could be several weeks before a decision is made.
Hydrocyanic acid, a highly poisonous acidic solution of hydrogen cyanide in water, is used to make materials such as nylons and plastics.
It is a byproduct of another process at Cornerstone, the production of acrylonitrile — a toxic liquid used to make artificial fibers. Cornerstone is spending $20 million to upgrade the efficiency of its reactor, and the result is that it will produce less cyanide.
However, the proposed new plant would make enough hydrocyanic acid to offset that decline. Cornerstone is contractually obligated to provide the current amount to the end user, which is also located at the Cornerstone plant.
So despite the new production, Cornerstone says the net amount of hydrocyanic acid at the site will not increase.
The company notes that it has produced, handled and managed hydrocyanic acid at the site since 1953, and that all of what it produces is consumed onsite.
Taylor, who was one of several hundred people who turned out for a public hearing on the matter Tuesday, noted that there were far fewer residents living nearby in the 1950s. And while residents may not have been aware that hydrocyanic acid was being made at the plant all this time, she said that doesn’t change the implications.
“If they were asking us if they could build a plant today, the response would be the same,” she said.
“Our eyes needed to be open, and they weren’t before,” she said. “Now that we’re aware, we’re watching and we’re looking.”
Cornerstone is one of scores of industrial sites lining the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. And the growing concerns among Jefferson residents echo potentially more worrisome issues farther upriver.
In St. James Parish, a wall holding back a pen of acidic water has recently threatened to break, and a plant producing chloroprene in St. John the Baptist Parish faces a raft of lawsuits that allege it has sickened residents for decades.
While DEQ has publicly taken the Jefferson Parish landfill to task for a malfunctioning liquid and gas collection system that has been producing smelly gases, many residents and parish officials feel the agency has dropped the ball on investigating other potential sources of the odors.
And the agency’s public statements about what it can and cannot do to figure out why flakes of particulate often fall from the sky at night have drawn the ire of many residents who — fairly or unfairly — see the agency as ineffectual.
“We’ve sort of lost faith in LDEQ,” Taylor said, adding that she thinks the agency should deny the permit Cornerstone is seeking “and deal with the things they already have to solve.”
All plants have a legally allowed level of emissions. Cornerstone has been cited several times in recent years for violating its permit, including an August 2017 incident when a worker left a valve open, releasing hydrogen cyanide and sending him to the hospital.
“We don’t need any more air emissions,” Taylor said. “We already have enough risk; we already have enough with what we are dealing with now.”
If the project is approved, it would create temporary construction jobs for 240 workers. The plant would be operational by 2022, creating 21 full-time jobs with an average salary of $80,000 a year, plus benefits, the company said.
Cornerstone, which is headquartered in Metairie, has about 500 employees. The Waggaman facility, which is known as the Fortier Manufacturing Complex, is also home to Evonik Cyro LLC, Dyno Nobel and Kemira Chemicals Inc.